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Sub-zero sojourn into flow country's remote parts


By Ben MacGregor

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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: A frozen landscape of dubh lochs and bog offers tough but rewarding walking into the wilds

Crossing the dubh lochans.
Crossing the dubh lochans.

Loch More is only a short journey from Thurso – people often go out there to walk dogs, it’s the most accessible flow country loch. Before the clearances, there were small settlements and shielings and later several isolated shepherds’ and gamekeepers’ cottages remained.

Now, you quickly enter wild and empty country beyond the road-end.

It was clear and calm with a temperature of minus five as I set out to walk the two miles up the track to Backlass. The loch was frozen and I crunched through a thin covering of snow.

A mile on is Achscoriclate in a fine setting just above the shore of the loch. The house is now just an empty shell but was an inhabited three-roomed cottage when I first knew it.

Soon I reached Backlass, the normally very wet track was frozen hard. This must have been a fine place to live, high up with a vista over miles of empty moorland. Now the house is decaying fast, windows are missing or broken and the rooms are full of rubbish.

Frozen conditions are ideal for crossing the flows, the normally wettest places give the easiest walking, though it is still hard going. There was enough snow to look attractive but not enough for cross-country skiing. I headed south-east, another long mile to Loch Sand but the frozen dubh-lochs a delight to walk across easily instead of picking a tortuous route through the bog.

Backlass.
Backlass.

Below was the loch, gleaming under an unbroken blue sky. There was no wind at all, complete silence with white empty country stretching for miles around, you had to look hard to see any sign at all of mankind. The only sound indeed was that of my clicking mechanical heart-valves!

It is always rough, wet going along peatland loch shores, so it was wonderful just to amble easily southwards over the hard-frozen and snow-dusted Loch Sand in the sunshine.

I kept near the shore for safety where I knew the water was shallow. At the southern end, the ice was thinner where burns enter and leave the loch, so I regained the shore and immediately found much harder going, the first difficulty being to leap across the deep and slow-moving outlet.

Rough moorland with big tussocks now gave some very hard going but it was just another mile to my main objective for the day. On a little hilltop, Cnoc na Crois, stands Clach na Ciplich, all that remains of what was once a large slab of rock with an inscribed cross dating back to the seventh or eighth century.

It took a bit of a search to find it, just a fragment like a gravestone and with imagination you could make out part of a cross. The silent white moors stretched for miles towards the Caithness mountains, the only signs of mankind being a few faint quad-bike tracks and some distant forestry plantations.

The cross slab.
The cross slab.

It was another long, hard mile through tussock, rush and frozen bog before the old Thulachan Lodge appeared ahead. This long, low building of a dozen rooms once boasted all mod-cons including hot water and flush toilets but was already mostly derelict 40 years ago. Now most of the windows are out, the floors are rotting and the rooms are full of debris. The route to it has been lost in the bogs and a visit is only for the brave unless it is very dry or frozen hard.

The old building is in an idyllic spot above Lochan Thulachan, a loch full of trout to judge from the 1903 fishing tally which can still be seen pencilled on a wall of the end room.

Once again I strode out over a frozen white loch before picking up a quad-bike track heading back to the old shepherd’s house of Balavreed. Forty years ago this building still gave a comfortable bothy night, now it is a complete ruin with little remaining of the roof.

An easy walk led back to Loch More, the boggy sections of the track frozen. The area to the east was saved at the last minute from disastrous tax-dodge forestry plantings, it was already fenced and roaded but the government at last recognised the folly of these schemes and removed the subsidies.

We need policy-makers to see similar sense and stop offering constraint payments to yet more useless and destructive wind farms in Caithness, which have no conceivable means of exporting or storing most of the electricity they produce.

The sun was setting over frozen Loch More, a few dog-walkers were out and the thermometer was still reading minus five.

Thulachan Lodge.
Thulachan Lodge.

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